Batman which debuted in 1989 was the comic book superhero’s first big movie outing. Last week it completed its 30th year anniversary and there is a frenzy of sorts amongst the fans universe of the caped crusader. There is also the news that Robert Pattinson has been zeroed in for the role of Batman for the new movie to be directed by Matt Reeves.
It’s very easy to extrapolate data amongst Indian fans and there is a strong chance that 90% of Indian Batman fans owe their allegiance to the superhero from Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” era. Be it T Shirts, Be it Mugs, Be it Action Figures, fans are subservient to the trilogy made in 2006-2012 by Nolan. If one might recollect, The Dark Knight was an adaptation of the Frank Miller comic of the same name. They have a cult following and no one replaces that.
But beyond the optics of all of this, there was a 5 decade old struggle to get Batman to the movie theatre. The struggle led by Executive Producers Michael E Uslan and late Benjamin Melniker bore fruit when in 1989, “Batman” released to much fanfare and broke all the major box office records at that time.
I myself saw it as an 11 year old with my brother and sister at the famed Chanakya cinema in New Delhi.
The film starred Michael Keaton as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Jack Nicholson as Jack Napier/The Joker, Michael Gough as Alfred, Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale with Jack Pallance as Carl Grissom and Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent. The film was produced by Warner Bros in association with Peters/Gruber Company.
Show me The Money and then some!
“Batman” had spawned the “licensing and merchandising” business of superhero films. Something which Marvel and others followed. It is estimated that “Batman” which was a sort of a rookie superhero film idea generated over $500 Million sales in non theatrical revenues including DVDs. That’s actually larger than the box office haul of $411 Million. At over $900 Million revenue for a $48 Million budget, “Batman” became the poster child of the superhero genre.
Jack Nicholson who became possibly the first big star to portray “The Joker” made more money than any villain ever! He settled for a percentage of profits from box office and merchandise sales. He ended up making $100 Million from the role until 2015 and is still counting. It’s also the first superhero film to invest heavily into the soundtrack of the film by hiring award winning musician “Prince” to create the music and songs of the movie. In fact, the soundtrack topped the Billboard charts and is part of the central narrative of the film.
The Joker – Colorful and deeply patriarchal
The first outing of The Joker can be considered as a watershed event for the comic book world and popular culture. A studio went on to build a very powerful villain against an almost unknown actor who would play the Batman. This was unorthodox at that time. One needs to note that only “Superman” was out in 1979 followed by its sequels. So the audience was yearning for “Fantasy Power Heroes” more than Batman who is more “human” in powers. In this regard, Batman was a very big risk for all parties involved from the perspective of casting especially. Not to mention that Uslan and Melniker had been crusading with the studios since 1979 to make a film based on the caped crusader.
To give a perspective, Jack Nicholson himself was a big cost center to the producers. Be it his outrageously colorful costumes, the music of Prince to accompany his antics, the outlandish violence (from the 1980’s perspective) and the concerted effort to make the ‘villain’ look tempting and “monumental”. Jack Nicholson gave a performance befitting his stature and ended up creating a large following around himself and the mystique of The Joker character.
Ever since Joker has been portrayed, voiced by big stars such as Mark Hamill, Jared Leto, the late Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix. After “Batman”, The Joker is arguably the biggest super villain in comic book universe. Another fact to note is that this is the only film where there is a backstory to the Joker (the origin of Jack Napier). This will change with “Joker”, the new film starring Joaquin Phoenix.
However, Nicholson is seen as a deeply patriarchal person who detests the idea of a “woman as an equal”. In one of the scenes, where he is looking at the work of Vicki Vale in her project album, he keeps uttering “Crap….Crap” as a way to make her feel small. Vale played by Kim Basinger also doesn’t really rise to the challenge. She keeps howling and screaming every time The Joker appears in front of her. In yet another scene, he claims, “How come you set me up for a “Woman”.
The Look and Feel Of The Comic Book
“Batman” was the ultimate comic book film. It was shot largely in a studio. It had a dark tone to its color. Each frame resembles the dark/black tone in the backdrop. The Batsuit, The Batman logo, The Batplane, Jokers Costumes were all created to give a spitting image of the comic books of Batman till the 1980’s. For its time, “Batman” was a dark film and not a fun/family movie by any stretch. It had Bruce Wayne suffering from the loss of his parents, it had a complex relationship between Wayne and his love Vicki Vale. Today all these might seem as “light” as compared to “The Dark Knight” universe but for 1989 it was a nuanced film.
The Gotham City with its signature components such as The Gotham City press, the landmarks across the city, the Giant Joker balloon were created to give an authentic comic book looks to the film. This was a clear strategy to pander to the 50 year plus history of comics and TV Shows as well as its captive audience.
The Gadgetry of Batman and The Joker
The film which was the debut vehicle for Batman was the second big outing for DC Comics after The Superman trilogy which was already a big hit. However, Batman was another baby altogether. He has no superpowers and his entire firepower comes from his self created and funded gadgets. The film showed The Batmobile, The Batcave, The Batplane, The various weapons like guns, knives etc used by Batman. In addition, a whole lot of gadgetry of The Joker was also given a lot of importance on the screen. His cosmetics brand, his crew, the giant gun, different costumes for different attacks and the forced grin on each of his victims. This was truly the hallmark of this film. It branded Batman as a ‘creative commodity’ for a generation in addition to being a great literary creation by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.
The Aftermath – Strategic Importance of the film in the comic book movie business.
The monster success of “Batman” paved the way for the 3 films built in the similar mould which include “Batman Returns”, “Batman Forever” and “Batman and Robin”. Michael Keaton appeared in only “Batman Returns”. Val Kilmer played Batman in “Batman Forever” while George Clooney was the lead in “Batman and Robin”.
They were all financial successes but could never match the box office might of “The Batman” . But this entire franchise’s success inspired Warner Bros, DC to collaborate with Christopher Nolan and create the multi billion dollar generating “Dark Knight” trilogy.
In between Marvel and Disney were busy putting plans under Kevin Feige and his team to build the film slate of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The rest that followed is history…..
Batman is and always be the ultimate tribute to comic book fans and popular culture geeks. It will always be the first film which crafted a film to present a superhero like never before!